Little Known Black History Fact: William Carney

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  • William Carney was the first black U.S. soldier to earn the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 1863, Carney joined the Morgan Guards, which later became the 54th Massachusetts Infantry.

    A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Carney was born a slave in 1840. After moving to New Bedford, MA, Carney’s father escaped slavery and later bought his family’s freedom. Carney had hoped to pursue ministry work but found a calling to join the Army.

    During the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863, Carney earned the title of sergeant for his amazing efforts despite the flying bullets and over 200 bodies that surrounded him. Carney threw down his weapon and grabbed the Infantry’s U.S. flag. After being shot twice, he made his way through the neighboring ditch through the water and carried it behind Union lines. Another Union soldier from a different Infantry offered to take the flag from Carney but he refused. By this time, he had been shot four times, including a graze to the head. Carney wholeheartedly believed that the flag had to be delivered by someone from the 54th Infantry, Company C.

    Roughly 272 men out of 600 soldiers died at Fort Wagner, including Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. Because of the bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, President Lincoln recognized the 54th as a crucial component to a Civil War victory.

    Sgt. Carney recovered from his gunshot wounds but was unable to continue his services for the 54th. On May 23, 1900, Sgt. Carney was honored with the Medal of Honor, 40 years after his service at Fort Wagner.

    Note: This fact was submitted by Phyllis B. Cunningham at Johns Hopkins University, a dedicated listener.

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